Going on a Soviet scavenger hunt in Vietnam

Going on a Soviet scavenger hunt in Vietnam

Before Vietnam's economic liberalization, the old U.S.S.R. had considerable influence over the development of the country, with many historical remnants still visible in Hanoi
Lenin Park, Vietnam
A statue of Lenin towers over a park next to the Vietnam Army Museum.
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Before Vietnam was a rapidly growing, increasingly neon-lit place, things were Soviet dreary: long on lines and short on rations. Until economic liberalization it was the U.S.S.R. and other communist republics, not today's capitalist economies, that gave aid and assistance. But unlike the relics of French colonial rule that live on in the big cities -- think tree-lined boulevards, mustard-colored buildings and lots of coffee and baguettes -- Soviet influence is harder to find.

But it is there and it is worth discovering, especially in Hanoi.

History 

The U.S.S.R.-Vietnam relationship dates back to the 1930s marked by great shows of words and a smaller shows of force. Moscow backed Vietnam’s 1978 invasion of Cambodia but did little to help the Viet Minh against the French or the Americans. Areas of Soviet contribution included weaponry and training.

In the 1980s thousands of Vietnamese scientists, doctors and cadres studied across the Soviet Union. Dr Nguyen Van Chau, deputy director of Vietnam’s hydrology institute, spent over eight years studying in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Odessa in the Ukraine. She moved to Moscow to complete her Ph.D in 1995.

“Vietnam had just started to develop after destructive wars; the lack of qualified officials for management was one of the significant difficulties,” says Ms Chau. “The relationship between Vietnam and the Soviet Union was so close and steady, not only me but also my friends consider Russia their second country.”

Click here to see the streets of Hanoi's Old Quarter

Vietnam expert Professor Carl Thayer wrote in 1991, just prior to the collapse of the USSR, “An attraction that Soviet educational institutions have… is that the USSR holds little attraction for the students after graduation as a destination for emigration.” 

Often students brought back more than expertise.

Beer and cheese

Hoa Vien BeerhausHoa Vien Beerhaus.The French introduced bia (beer) to Vietnam but the Czechs and Germans also influenced the imports. 

Many of those studying in communist republics, like then-communist Czechoslovakia, got a taste for pilsner and brought it back to the big cities. These days Czech and German beer halls are hugely popular with a growing middle class who can afford more than 15 cents for locally brewed bia hoi. Half-liter glasses of crisp pilsner, often brewed on-site, come in at a couple of dollars and are usually enjoyed in vast, air-conditioned beer halls like Hoa Vien Brauhaus in Hanoi.

Hoa Vien Brauhaus, 1A Tang Bat Ho street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, Tel: +84 4 3972 5088.

Lesser mentions: Smoked Russian string cheese and Vietnamese-made Klobasa sausages are also popular, often more so than their French counterparts. Look for them in beer halls and nightclubs as a snack that's saltier than the usual fruit platter, or find them in most mini marts.

Getting around, Minsk style

Minsk motorbike, VietnamBefore the cities were overfilled with Honda scooters each carrying 19 teenagers, most people rode bicycles. The lucky few who didn’t might have got around on a Minsk, a smoke-belching 125cc bike made in Belarus. For years now it’s had cult status among Hanoi’s expats but a larger number of trendy young Vietnamese are now rich and educated enough to own one of these beasts over a posh Piaggio.

See American military history at the Vietnam Army Museum in Hanoi

Lesser mentions: Cars are a rarity still; over 90 percent of traffic is two-wheeled. But back in the 1980s Soviet-made cars such as the Lada or Uaz jeep were some of the few vehicles on the near-empty streets and if you concentrate you may even catch a glimpse of one, between the parades of luxury SUVs.

From Russia with love

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, VietnamHo Chi Minh Mausoleum.One of Hanoi’s most famous buildings also houses its most famous man -- Uncle Ho. The mausoleum was a gift from the U.S.S.R. after his death and he remains in state there much of the year -- with trips back to Russia for the occasional makeover. 

Lesser mention: Lenin isn’t the figurehead he was but he hasn’t been forgotten in Hanoi either. Reunification Park, in the capital’s southern Hai Ba Trung district, is still known by its original name: Lenin Park.

Ba Dinh Square, not far from the Mausoleum, is home to a large Lenin statue -- coattails flying out from behind him. Warm evenings bring out families and teenaged skateboarders and dawn sees tai chi enthusiasts and aerobics fans jerking to techno.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, 5 Ngoc Ha street, Ba Dinh District, Hanoi. Closed Mondays and Fridays

 

Helen Clark is a Vietnam-based freelance journalist. She has written for Time, The Economist, Australian Associated Press, GlobalPost, IRIN News, The Independent and IPS News. 

 

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